Governor orders paid sick leave for food workers

Farm workers, grocery store and fast-food employees and delivery drivers will receive two weeks of paid sick leave so they won’t feel pressured to keep working while infected with the coronavirus, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced.

The executive order signed Thursday covers those who work for large employers, filling a gap left by a federal act this month that required employers to provide emergency paid sick leave but exempted those with more than 500 workers.

Newsom called the financial help critical and said that at least 51 workers at a Safeway distribution warehouse in the Central Valley had tested positive for COVID-19. One died.

“These workers on the front lines of this crisis are our unsung heroes for continuing to work to ensure that Californians have food on their tables during these challenging times, and we must do everything in our power to make sure they are taken care of at home and in the workplace,” Newsom said. “You are not disposable. You are essential,” he said.

California’s month-long stay-at-home order that closed many businesses but exempts food suppliers, considering them as essential infrastructure.

But many industry workers are low-paid and lack benefits. A survey of more than 30,000 service workers taken between 2017 and 2019 by the Shift Project at the University of California, Berkeley found that 55% reported they didn’t have paid sick leave. The survey, reported Thursday by CNN, covered workers in various service jobs, including food services.

Newsom’s order mandates sick leave for full-time workers who have the virus or who cannot work because of quarantine orders, in addition to leave they may already have.

Some large employers are granting paid COVID-19 sick leave to workers but they require proof in the form of a positive diagnosis — a problem because COVID-19 tests remain in short supply in many places.

Several cities, including San Francisco, already passed measures requiring large companies to provide 14 days of leave to workers affected by COVID-19 — the period many health experts say is necessary to ensure that a worker isn’t infectious. San Francisco’s bill was expected to cover about 200,000 workers.

Officials in Long Beach are discussing a similar measure to require two weeks of sick time for businesses with 500 or more employees nationally. The change would apply to some franchises, assuming that they have a presence in Long Beach and also employ 500 or more people under the same local corporation. It would not apply to businesses that are currently closed or to employees who were already laid off.

Newsom made the announcement while warning that there remain virus “hot spots” throughout the state despite some encouraging signs that the overall pandemic may be slowing. Calling for continued vigilance, Newsom cited a nursing home in Visalia, where at least 156 people tested positive and 10 died.

Newsom also cited an outbreak at a Safeway warehouse in Tracy.

One employee, Pedro Zuniga of Turlock, died on Monday, according to his son, Jose Valencia.Valencia told KTXL-TV that his father had a fever and began showing COVID-19 symptoms earlier this month after a work shift, and the family believes he was infected by a coworker.

“It’s hard just because I feel like his death could have been prevented,” Valencia said.

Northern California Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall said about 3% of the 1,700 workers at the Tracy facility have tested positive for the virus and enhanced safety measures are in place. It provides groceries to about 300 stores throughout Northern California, Nevada and Hawaii.

“We continue to reinforce with all associates the importance of social distancing as the most effective tool we have to combat the spread of COVID-19,” Gutshall said in a statement.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

More than 950 people have died from the virus in California, according to Johns Hopkins University. Los Angeles County, which has nearly half the statewide deaths, on Thursday reported 55 new deaths, its highest daily death toll by far.

But the daily percentage rise in new cases was down to single instead of double digits.

Dozens of healthcare workers, police and firefighters have come down with COVID-19 and there are concerns that other essential workers are at risk.

Earlier this week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents supermarket and food processing workers around the country, said at least 30 members had died from COVID-19 and at least 3,000 have the virus or have been exposed to it.

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